By and large, 2016 has been a spectacularly poor year for film; particularly the outputs from the United States and the United Kingdom. However there has been a number of fantastic offerings, and a whole host of amazing performances, too. Now it is a common misconception that a “great performance” makes a film “great”; plenty of extremely average features are elevated by a tremendous screen-turn from an actor or actress – just look at movies like The Light Between Oceans and Allied for example…
As we are very much in the thick of “Awards Season”, the internet is awash with musings and potential bets for which films, performances, directors, and so on will be in contention for that all-desired Academy Award nomination. We have the Screen Actors Guild (SAGs), Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and The Oscars all en route, and chances are you’ve got a pretty firm idea of the top candidates already.
With this in mind, we have selected ten absolutely brilliant performances from 2016 – all within UK theatrical release dates (January 1st – December 31st) – which wholeheartedly deserve awards attention, yet are almost certainly going to miss the bill. Largely ignoring the quality of the films in question, and focussing on the work of the particular performer within them, here is our selections for the best unlucky bunch of the year…
10. Stephen Lang – Don’t Breathe
Unrelentingly terrifying, and somehow able to subtly switch from victim to provocateur, Stephen Lang’s textured and spine-chilling performance in Don’t Breathe is a work of physical excellence. His gulf war veteran, dubbed “The Blind Man”, finds sanctuary jeopardised when a trio of burglars break into his property which is laden with dollar bills. However unfortunately for them, whilst his sight may be impaired, his other senses and skills are unfathomably elevated, making him a silently-stepping death machine.
This brutal and hulking performance from Lang makes even his mere presence in frame feel intimidating, and without the luxury of eyes to evoke a sense of human emotion, he must enable his muscular form to do the talking. He is a formidable opponent for the robbers, and one who will stop at nothing to protect his home and his personal projects (you know what we mean…). As American horror movies go, Don’t Breathe has some of the best acting for a good while, and whilst the kids are great, it is the old dog who offers a whole host of new tricks.
09. Jodie Whittaker – Adult Life Skills
Finding the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy is not easy; often performers will lean too favourable on one side, placing strain on their conflicted characterisation. Not Jodie Whittaker however. In fact, she makes it look so alarming natural that we see her character as a fully-rendered human being. Her transformative and entirely heartfelt work in Adult Life Skills is a profoundly beautiful tapestry of emotion. Her Anna – a women teetering on her thirties who currently resides in her mother’s shed – is searching for her place in the world, and attempting to build bridges with her communal residents despite psychological distance.
What could have easily transcribed as saccharine and sentimental is entirely the opposite, rather a razored, quietly heartbreaking portrait in which Whittaker revels. Her dialogue exchanges are frenetic and packed with high-wire laughs, whilst her sobering sequences maintain a sense of weight so frequently lacking from most independent British cinema. Adult Life Skills is a finite gem, and shining brightly at its heart is this gloriously intimate performance.
08. Julian Dennison – Hunt For The Wilderpeople
Let’s be honest: kid performances can be extremely annoying. Inexperience in-front of the camera can cause for bookish work which is immediately noticeable for the wrong reasons. Enter Julian Dennison – the young New Zealander, aged just fourteen – who goes toe-to-toe with Sam Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople and completely steals the show. What a side-splitting and entirely professional performance this is. It offers a dense character insight and coordination as well as being endlessly hilarious and entirely sincere. His Tupac-adoring juvenile delinquent Ricky is arguably one of the year’s most memorable figures; a rocket of cultural energy who finds himself on the run in the thick New Zealand bush as child services attempt to track him down.
Dennison enables his performance to gently alter as the narrative presses onwards. He starts in one place, and ends in another, yet the central principals of his character remain intact. The layering of humour, heart, and potent drama on offer is most admirable, and despite the film benefiting from some excellent set-pieces, it is in the smaller and gentler moments where the hard work really pays off. As young actors go, Dennison has a bright future ahead, and his work in Hunt for the Wilderpeople is as joyous and reverent as the film itself.
07. Imogen Poots – Green Room
Arguably one of the sharpest and most underrated performers of her age, the ever-great Imogen Poots continues to reach for complex roles in avant-garde titles. Green Room – the nasty, nuts-and-bolts genre flick – is the perfect battleground for her meaner streak, and she thrives in the ensuing chaos. Blending jagged wit with ultra-violence, she simply chews up the surrounding scenery. Her character Amber becomes embezzled with the punk rock group who find themselves at the merciless hands of Neo-Nazi skinheads who have the place on lockdown.
Tension twists like a rusty knife, and the tight-knit gaggle of performers – including the late Anton Yelchin – must make use of their limited surroundings in order to survive. Initially distant and callous, Poots evolves into something toweringly menacing; a claret-drench rock chick wielding shotguns and razors. It sounds extremely Tarantino on paper, but she has her feet placed firmly on the ground: it is do-or-die, and she ain’t dying. Poots’ physicality is exceptionally exercised, and she harnesses a frame as angular and aggressive as her bile-sodden dialogue. Green Room is an exhilarating cinematic rush, and she provides the most clinical of injections.
06. Jake Gyllenhaal – Demolition
The limitations of Jake Gyllenhaal’s creative range seem non-existent. Here is an actor forever pushing the envelope; exploring uncharted territories, and submersing himself in the pool of possibilities. One of his many spectacular performances comes in the form of Demolition – the largely forgotten and poorly advertised character drama – which sees him harness an emotionally and spiritually fractured soul ever-searching for fulfilment. Both understated and alarming, it is a elegantly calibrated offering from the Hollywood titan.
Gyllenhaal’s grief-ridden Davis, a wealthy investment banker whose wife perishes in a tragic car accident, is tonally hollowed by trauma and the repetitive cycle of existence. He begins to affiliate with destruction, and finds reward in the breaking of objects; examining their shattered pieces as a reflection of his psychological form. Rendered with equal sincerity and cynicism, this deeply profound and thoughtful character showcases the beautiful complexities of sadness. Gyllenhaal’s body language consumes the frame with the truest humanity, and he rattles off defensive dialogue to mesmerising effect. Many audiences bypassed Demolition which was a mistake because in the dust-clad rubble lies an extremely meaningful screen presence.
05. Dakota Fanning – American Pastoral
Considering her age, it is almost unbelievable just how long Dakota Fanning has been occupying our screens, and she is still continuing to expertly challenge her abilities. With a broad repertoire of potent characters under her belt, she furthers the distance between her counterparts with this startlingly magnetic and delicately orchastrated performance in American Pastoral. Watching her façade fracture under the potency of a corrupt government – a United States hanging in the balance under Lyndon B. Johnson’s rule – is both arresting and crushing.
In this 60s period drama she plays Merry; a young daughter to the most idyllic of parents, who suffers with a disarming stutter. As she ages, she develops heightened, radical, political and social opinions. Fanning electrifies the frame and film with her atmospheric presence; uncompromising, shocking, and aggressive. Dwelling with chilling silences and stillness, she lingers with ethereal horror, ensuring the comfort of picket-fence domesticity becomes entirely extinguished. She bears a toxicity to her tongue, even when the words refuse to arrive, and brilliantly underpins a young person consumed by conflicted morality. American Pastoral is deeply provocative and thoughtful filmmaking, and just like Fanning, is wise beyond its years.
04. Ralph Ineson – The Witch
Unquestionably the definitive horror release of the year, The Witch is that rare work in which every principle filmic process not only assists the impending doom and drama unfolding on-screen, but takes a vital thematic and atmospheric form, too. The film offers many breakout performances amongst the slight ensemble, but it is the growling yet painfully humane offering from Ralph Ineson which completely overwhelms. Stationed somewhere firmly between man and animal, his William, patriarch of the 17th Century New England family, is arguably one of the most complicated personas of 2016.
He has monstrous qualities such as a booming baritone and rough, ragged physique, yet strained humanity is woven underneath his foreboding façade. This is a man completely conflicted – emotionally and metaphorically – as he attempts to battle faith, love, family, and fear. He has an allegiance to the Lord, and to his wife and children, and having to decide between makes for unearthly powerful viewing. Ineson’s interplay dialogue with Anya Taylor-Joy (who is now en route to a prosperous career; quite rightly so) is entirely captivating and profound. As the seeds of doubt begin to set in and suspicions about his child arise, the drama steamrolls like a freight train: brutal, frantic, and uncompromising. If you are yet to see The Witch, ensure you do so before compiling that “Best of 2016” list.
03. Shailene Woodley – Snowden
Maintaining the supporting role can be a difficult and frustrating thing. Often the actor or actress can be wrongly overshadowed by their leading counterpart, despite turning in as great – if not better – work. Whilst Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s transformative central role as government whistleblower Edward Snowden in the titular Snowden is remarkable, co-star Shailene Woodley lends one of her most assured and tonally rendered performances as Lindsay Mills; his ever-liberal and long-suffering girlfriend who is forced to consistently amend her life patterns for the sake of their relationship.
Wearing emotional scars as valiantly as political ideals, this is a supremely textured and developmental performance; one laden with tender nuance – blink-and-you’ll-miss-it emotion. Her quietness in frame evokes a rich sense of melancholy, which favours kindly to the frenetic espionage drama of Snowden’s existence. She – just like he – is a conflicted soul; a person of great values and morality, who is cruelly caught between her head and heart. Woodley’s elegance and grace brings such compassion and weight to the domesticated drama of this otherwise high-octane biopic, and the sequences she shares with Levitt are far more believable and authentic than all the jargon-stuffed technicals. Snowden is a hugely exciting and impressive dramatisation, and thanks to the depth of this performance, is able to resonate profoundly with all viewers.
02. Mark Wahlberg – Deepwater Horizon
To further the previous statement about overshadowing, few actors are subjected to the gloomy darkness quite like Mark Wahlberg. For years he has been providing beautifully human performances, and falling short at the final hurdle because Academy voters are attracted to showy rather than subtle. His evocative and powerfully rendered central turn in Deepwater Horizon is without question one of the best Hollywood performances of the year; expertly blending feverish action, poignant character drama, and dense physicality. Working on overdrive, he serves up a realised portrait as explosive and developmental as the destructing oil rig he stands atop of.
Able to inject grief and trauma into sequences of apocalyptic mayhem is a real credit to his craft. Even when flames are raging, bodies are flying, and molten liquid is spewing, Wahlberg’s Chief electronics technician Mike Williams still feels like an everyman caught in the crossfire. Suddenly the ordinary has become extraordinary, and the overwhelming magnitude of the situation plagues. Fighting his way through frame, this is a muscular yet intimate offering from the great Bostonian – one which rewards giant moments of chaos with quaint images of quietness. A particular sequence following the ordeal is simply heartbreaking, with Wahlberg exercising his tonal palette to decadent effect. Deepwater Horizon is one of the very few “great” blockbusters of the year, and that’s because at the bottom of the ocean lies sincerity and integrity.
01. Elle Fanning – The Neon Demon
The younger Fanning sister – still somehow only eighteen years of age despite over 50 screen credits – delivers the finest performance of this calendar year in The Neon Demon; a work of transcendent, hypnotic, and nightmarish mastery. This is a screen turn so immediate and disarming that the transformation knocks you out like a sucker-punch. Elle Fanning was already one of the most exciting talents of her generation, but now she leads the pack. This heady, awe-inspiring offering comes in the form of Jesse; a wide-eyed and virginal beauty who arrives in Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of modelling. Fashion photographers instantly notice her fresh, untainted form and soon she begins overstepping the many fellow females all striving to attain their goals. As her career ascents, her morality descends, creating an entirely unpredictable and gorgeously terrifying young women.
Baring her artistic soul and constantly challenging the range and calibre of her skillset, this is without question the bravest and most commanding English-language performance of 2016. Watching the shifts in characterisation as this quaint and sheepish young girl – the rabbit caught in headlights – evolves into this ferocious, seductive, and entirely sinister presence is enough to slacken the jaw. The alteration is so natural and assured that you simply couldn’t imagine another actress thriving in such a role. Fanning’s ghostly aura as she floats through frame and consumes us with her pools of sight keeps the trance caught in a vice. She appears in nearly every image here, and draws the viewer in like light; her potency and prowess forever ignited. She spits her fragmented dialogue with corrosive acidity, but it’s the magnitude of body language which really overwhelms. The Neon Demon is a candy-coloured fever-dream, and Fanning glows with the brightest of hues.
What are your picks for the best performances of the year which have little chance of awards success? Comment below and let us know!